Congressional Democrats insist they are not to be taken for granted. And for all of the talk about cooperation and bipartisanship which spews like a geyser at the beginning of a Congress, the first two weeks of the year revealed Democrats throwing up roadblocks and protecting their causes. It created a lot of headaches for Republicans who now hold majorities in both bodies.
Let’s start with the Senate. The calendar may have just flipped to 2015. But believe it or not, it’s really 2016.
And not in the way you might think.
Yes, there’s plenty of chatter about Jeb and Christie and Rand. Oh, what is Huckabee up to? There’s talk of Hillary and O’Malley and Biden and Webb. Better keep an eye on that dark horse Pence.
But on Capitol Hill, the 2016 Congressional elections are already in full-force.
There are two fundamental essences of the United State Senate: unlimited debate and an unlimited amendment process. During the last Congress under Democratic control, Republicans brayed at how then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would use privileges afforded him to halt debate and short-circuit the opportunity to offer amendments. When the GOP seized control this year, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he wanted the Senate to “work” and he would offer an open amendment process. Democrats are sure taking advantage of that, offering a slew of amendments to a bill to approve the Keystone pipeline.
This is by design. And it all has to do with 2016.
Certainly some of those amendments reflect the true values of Democrats when discussing Keystone. There’s an amendment which looks at whether burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming. There’s another amendment suggesting the U.S. transition from fossil fuels. These amendments highlight the key differences between the parties on Keystone.
Consider this for a moment: 24 Senate Republicans are up in 2016. A scant ten Democrats face re-election. Now study some of the first-term GOP senators who will be on the ballot next year. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Rob Portman (R-OH). All were elected in 2010, a banner, midterm election year for Republicans. And all are from swing states. Swing states in 2016, a presidential election year. This inherently complicates their re-election plans. And Democrats are there to make things even tougher.
When Reid ran the Senate, he was leery of the GOP forcing vulnerable Democrats to take tough votes before the midterm elections. As Majority Leader, Reid had the first right to offer amendments. As a result, he’d jump right in and fill what’s called the amendment “tree” in the Senate. He’d then immediately file what’s called “cloture” to halt debate on a given issue. And that would be that. Little debate. Few if any amendments. And not many tough votes for exposed Democrats.
One can contest the soundness of that strategy. Those same Democratic senators Reid tried to shield are former Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Mark Begich (D-AK), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Mark Udall (D-CO). There’s a reason why they’re “former” senators. Perhaps it would have been better to let them vote their consciences and defend their votes. But Democrats are turning the tables on Republicans right now. Democrats are primed to pounce if McConnell does in fact permit an open amendment process and GOP senators up for re-election next year get squeezed on onerous votes. Folks at the Democratic Senatatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the campaign arm devoted to electing Democrats to the Senate, will document those roll call votes and run them out in ads next year. An announcer will ask viewers if they can believe that senator so-and-so voted a certain way. A tiny chyron will materialize at the bottom of the screen, showing the date of these controversial votes.
Of course the Senate doesn’t yet have an agreement to consider any amendments to the Keystone bill. Everyone is watching to see if McConnell sticks to that promise or brokers a deal with Democrats on how to proceed.
And just proceeding was an issue in the Senate this past week. Democrats filibustered an effort to place the Keystone bill on the floor. The way to overcome a filibuster is to file a cloture petition and then round up 60 votes on the “motion to proceed” to the bill. That happened Monday on a 63-32 vote, as ten Democrats and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) - who associates with the Democrats - voted to bring the bill to the floor.
But not just yet.
Senate rules permit up to 30 hours of additional debate after the Senate vaults that parliamentary hurdle and invokes cloture. Sometimes senators immediately yield the time back. But, it’s within the right of any senator to allow that 30 hours to burn off the clock in what’s sometimes called a “post-cloture filibuster.”
That’s exactly what Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and other Keystone opponents did late Monday and into Tuesday. The Senate may have successfully leaped the procedural barrier Monday evening with the cloture vote. But the Senate then must “vote to proceed” to the actual bill. That requires a simple majority. But Boxer and others made them run the clock. That potentially set up a 12:30 am Wednesday vote just to get on the bill. Boxer and others finally relented late Tuesday afternoon.
Senate Democrats headed to Baltimore to meet with President Obama on Thursday. The same day, Republicans traveled to Hershey, PA for a retreat with House GOPers. That essentially delayed any chance of votes on Keystone-related amendments until this coming Tuesday.
The rules are different in the House of Representatives. The majority runs the show. And if the majority is determined to knock something out, it can make it so – if it manages the floor properly.
Take a regulation reform and jobs bill House Republicans brought up last week. Only in the House of Representatives can a bill which received 276 yea votes last week and failed – score just 271 yes votes this week and pass.
That was the case this week when the House approved the Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act 271 to 154. It failed last week because the House GOP leadership treated the bill as a “suspension” measure. That means they used a special procedure to “suspend” the usual House provisions to expeditiously move the bill to the floor. The trade-off for the accelerated pace is less debate time and a two-thirds supermajority to pass the package.
Last week’s vote caught the GOP majority off-guard. A similar bill in the last Congress commanded more than 300 votes. So the GOP presumed it wouldn’t be a problem this time around.
It was. The bill marshaled 276 yeas and 146 nays. So with the two-thirds provision in play and 422 members voting, the package required 282 yes votes for passage.
Again, Democrats weren’t going to be taken for granted. Plus, there was another phenomenon at work. The legislation contained various provisions which many Democrats perceived as undermining portions of the Wall Street reform measure known as Dodd-Frank. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, helped lead the effort. She argued the GOP pushed the bill “under the guise of ‘helping small businesses.’” But Waters asserted the measure potentially exposed taxpayers to picking up the tab for failed risky investment schemes.
Why the switch now? All one must do is look at the Congressional patron saint of Dodd-Frank and consumer protection provisions: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Warren’s gained quite a following on the left. And examine how Warren’s leadership over similar proposals to erode Dodd-Frank led to a December struggle to pass the “CRomnibus,” the big spending bill to fund most of the federal government.
It took a visit to the Capitol by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to convince some Democrats to vote yes on the bipartisan CRomnibus bill – after Democrats slowed things down to show they wouldn’t be taken for granted.
Dodd-Frank is why Democrats jumped ship and why the votes weren’t there last week to pass the regulation bill under the “suspension” rules.
If this were tennis, they’d call it an “unforced error.” It wasn’t a good start for Republicans who argued their goal number one in this Congress would be righting the economy and fighting for jobs. But it was obvious the bill had the support to pass. Not just a supermajority.
If this were golf, and not tennis, they’d declare it a “mulligan.” Republicans brought up the bill again this past week under the standard regulations which require a simple majority. Yes, there were five fewer yeas. But the House approved it this time 271-154.
So are Democrats mangling the works of the new Republican-led Congress? So far, they’ve made things pretty difficult for the GOP.
“We are not the party of no. The Republicans are the party of no because they said right from the start (six years ago) that to prevent the president from being a success was the most important thing they could do. That’s their path,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “We have a path. We want a path to yes.”
And for Republicans to get to “yes” this Congress, these two issues demonstrate how the GOP will first have to figure out how to deal with the Democrats.